Rafael Chirbes: Paris-Austerlitz

paris

The latest addition to my website is Rafael ChirbesParis-Austerlitz. Chirbes had started this book in 1996, put it aside and then returned to it later, only finishing it last year, shortly before he died. It is a semi-autobiographical account of a homosexual relationship between a young bourgeois Spanish painter and a much older working-class French man. The unnamed narrator, the Spanish painter, has been thrown out his flat for not paying his rent and is taken in by Michel, who not only puts him up but looks after him and gives him money. Initially the relationship works well and the two are happy together. However, the narrator cannot really paint, as Michel’s flat is too small and too dark, so when he inherits some money he rents an adjacent flat with more space and light. This is the beginning of the end of the relationship. Gradually the relationship falls apart. Already at the beginning of the book, we know what has happened, as Michel is in hospital with AIDS, from a relationship after he broke up with the narrator. What makes this book more interesting than other similar works is the narrator’s detailed analysis of the relationship and of his and Michel’s motivation and feelings. This is certainly not his best book but nevertheless an interesting swan song.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

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This blog and the associated website are called Modern Novel for a very good and obvious reason: they are about the modern novel. Nearly all reviews are reviews of literary novels. However, every so often a short story or non-fiction work creeps in. This non-fiction work – The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction – may well be the most interesting work on the contemporary novel since Martin Seymour-Smith’s The New Guide to Modern World Literature, first published in 1973 and substantially revised in 1985. Despite being over thirty years out of date, I still regularly browse it. Seymour-Smith sadly died in 1998 and no-one took up the mantle, till now.

Anyone who reads this blog and the associated website will be well aware of The Complete Review and The Literary Saloon, its associated blog. It is a prodigious piece of work: a daily blog with several entries, every single day of the year, as well as reviews of a wide variety of books, though mainly novels in translation, almost every day of the year. I have often wondered how Michael Orthofer, who produces both on his own, manages it. Not only is the quantity high, so is the quality. There is always something to learn, some new book you will not have heard of or will have heard of but have not yet read, some new prize winner, announcement or other literary titbit, often accompanied by Michael’s (often acerbic) comments. You will have no doubt where Michael stands on a variety of writers and literary goings-on and other related matters. Yet now, he finds time to produce a 496 page book on the topic.

When I discussed this with Michael earlier this year, he said that I would learn little from it. He was, of course, completely wrong. I like to think that I know more than most about literary fiction in the modern world, yet I learned so much from this book. There were authors I had not heard of, books I had not heard of by authors I had heard of, and books I had heard of but had not read and was inspired, by reading Michael’s comments, to move them up my ever increasing, enormous pile of books to read. In short, I would challenge anyone, even Seymour-Smith, were he still alive, to not come away from this book, having discovered something new, be it a new author or a book not heard of.

The book has a long introduction about the world of translated literary fiction, book-selling and the like which, again, will reveal new information to even the hardiest of literary book bloggers. This is followed by sections, divided up by region and country (including English-speaking ones), where we get details of authors and their works. Pretty well the entire world is covered, though, as I know and Michael points out, there are a few areas of the world where there are few novels available in translation. The obvious limits are that he concentrates on books in English translation, which means that countries with very limited literary production such as Chad and São Tomé and Principe do not get a look in but, unless you read French or Portuguese, this is not an issue. Every country which has produced books that have appeared in translation is included, often in some detail. It concludes with an appendix on translation by numbers and an appendix of other useful sources on modern literary fiction.

Are there gaps? Yes, of course there are. He states quite clearly that he will focus on countries that write in languages other than English, so that this is probably not the book to turn to for the contemporary novel in the USA or the UK, though both are covered. Obviously, his tastes and mine do not always coincide and nor will his taste and yours but that is a good thing, not least as it makes you look at books and authors you have previously rejected with a new eye. However, I am never going to take to Scandi-crime, whatever Michael or anyone else may say in its favour. But these are minor quibbles. This book is a very worthy successor to Seymour-Smith and it will be a book I turn to frequently, both for browsing and for consulting on specific authors/books. Anyone with even the vaguest interest in contemporary fiction should get this book, which is published next week, 5 April. You will learn a lot.

Jorge Ibargüengoitia: Los relámpagos de agosto (The Lightning of August)

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The latest addition to my website is Jorge Ibargüengoitia‘s Los relámpagos de agosto (The Lightning of August), a very funny novel whcih ruthlessly satirises the memoirs of Mexican Civil War generals and the generals themselves. This novel is in the form of the memoirs of a fictitious Civil War general, called José Guadalupe Arroyo. He is now retired but telling his memoirs to show how gloriously he behaved and how he was betrayed by others, misunderstood and generally badly treated. He is in retirement at the beginning of the novel, when he receives a summons from an old comrade who is now president-elect and wants Arroyo to be his private secretary. After a night of debauchery, in celebration, he sets out for Mexico City only to learn, while en route, that the president-elect has had a stroke and died. At the funeral, he learns from the president-elect’s widow that Perez H has stolen the golden watch which the president-elect wanted Arroyo to have. When he meets Perez H, he pushes him in a puddle. This will cause him all sorts of problems later, not least because the widow finds the watch, which was not stolen. Soon thereafter, Perez H becomes interim president but Arroyo is too proud to apologise for his behaviour. Conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, mocking not only the Mexico of the time but Mexico as it would later become, take place as everyone tries to make sure they get their piece of the pie. Fighting breaks out and the fact that Arroyo does not do well is, of course, not his fault but the fault of other incompetents, as he is eager to tell us. It is very well done but hardly likely to have endeared him to the then Mexican ruling party.

Mario Vargas Llosa: Cinco Esquinas [Five Corners]

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The latest addition to my website is Mario Vargas Llosa‘s Cinco Esquinas [Five Corners]. Sadly this book confirms what we have known for a while, namely that Vargas Llosa’s talents have waned as he has got older. As you can see from the cover at left, soft-core porn features in the book (the newspaper headline reads Curfew throughout the country, which occurred during the period of terrorism under the presidency of Alberto Fujimori), though it is not particularly relevant to the story and seems mainly gratuitous. However, if lesbian soft-core porn is your thing, I am sure that you can find better examples elsewhere. The basic plot concerns a scurrilous journalist who tries to blackmail a rich and successful businessman (husband of one of the two women in the picture having a lesbian romp) as he has photos of the man with naked prostitutes. The businessman refuses to pay and the journalist publishes the photos. Much of the book is about the fall-out from this, which reaches to the heights of the Peruvian government and has devastating effects on several of the characters. The plot is fairly interesting and with one or two twists but far from being Nobel Prize calibre. Frankly, it is time for Vargas Llosa to retire.

Japanese Literature Part 2

Those of you of a certain age and, probably, British, may remember a song by the Vapors called Turning Japanese, with the chorus I’m turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so. After having read twenty Japanese novels in a row, eaten several meals of sushi, drunk loads of miso soup and watched one Japanese film, I don’t think that I am quite turning Japanese, but I certainly feel more attuned to Japan and its way of thinking. So what have I learned from my reading?

  • The Japanese like sex but have an ambiguous attitude to it. Nothing new there, as the same could be said about Western literature. If you thought that the Japanese were prudish about sex, you are probably right. So are or (can be) the British, the Americans and everyone else. However, they are, like the British, the Americans and everyone else, not afraid to portray it. We have, of course, seen that with Tanizaki, for example, but we can also see it in some women writers, writing over fifty years ago, such as Hayashi, Uno and Enchi, which we might not have expected. Only one of the novels I read – きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle) – dealt with homosexuality and then in a sort of mocking way.
  • They like their food. Again, food is an omnipresent in most literatures. In most literatures it can also be used as a ritual, as with big family meals or the like. The Japanese are, of course, noted for their tea ceremony and other food-related rituals, but in the twenty novels I have just read, I was surprised that snacking seemed fairly common, from the sushi served at funerals in Furui’s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) to the continual snacking of the two protagonists in Fujino’s ルート225 [Route 225]. In some cases – 先生の鞄 (US: The Briefcase; UK: Strange Weather in Tokyo) is a good example – eating seems to be almost obsessive.
  • Again, not surprisingly, they have a Buddhist approach to death. In Western literature, death is often considered a tragedy. The Japanese take it much more in their stride, as part of the normal course of events, which, of course, it is.
  • They are very much influenced by Western literature. We see the detective novel in Murakami and Yumeno and surrealism in Yumeno. The I-novel is clearly influenced by the Western autobiographical novel. There are lots of references to Western novels in Japanese novels but not, as far as I am aware, many references to Japanese novels in Western novels.
  • Christianity is only practised by one percent of Japanese, yet it does seem to have influenced some Japanese writers, particularly Endo and Ayako Miura, whom I nearly read this time but who did not quite make the cut, though writers such as Shimazaki and Shiga were influenced by it. 菩提樹 (The Buddha Tree) was the only one dealing extensively with Buddhism.
  • It is obvious that past and tradition remain important in Japanese literature (as well as Japanese society), even in modern novels. There is still a far greater veneration for the elderly, for the ancestors and for old customs. Obviously, we see this in Western literature, though nowadays far less than in Japan (yes, I am excluding Downton Abbey). For a Western reader, it is this sense of custom and tradition that makes the Japanese novel both exotic and fascinating, not least because it is sometimes not entirely clear why they do follow the rituals they do (but then they might think the same if they watch Downton Abbey).
  • Again, like Western writers, they have an ambiguous relationship with cities. Tokyo fascinates, as do London, New York, Paris and other cities in the West. But like Westerners, they like to get away from the city and enjoy the countryside. Two of the books – Hino’s 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams) and Furui’s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) show the fragility of Tokyo – air raids in the war, floods, fire, earthquakes and tornadoes, which we do not see so much outside science fiction books in the West (for which the Japanese have Godzilla, the Tokyo-munching monster). Three of the novels – Furui’s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody), Hino’s 夢の島 (Isle of Dreams) and Maruya‘s 笹まくら (Grass for My Pillow) – specifically deal with how much Tokyo has changed.
  • They like quirky but then so do Westerners.
  • I did not read any mobile/cell phone novels – maybe I should – but nevertheless was mildly surprised to find that technology did not play any significant role in any of the novels I read.

In conclusion, I found this a fascinating experience and am glad to have read such a variety of novels, the first published in 1935 and the most recent in 2010 (both, incidentally, by women). I have added a Best Japanese novels lists, based entirely on my idiosyncratic taste. If I did again tomorrow, it may well have been different. And now back to the rest of the world, where books have been published, prize longlists released and writers have carried on writing.

Risa Wataya: 勝手にふるえてろ [Tremble All You Want]

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The latest addition to my website is Risa Wataya‘s 勝手にふるえてろ [Tremble All You Want]. This is the first-person story of the twenty-six year old Yoshika Etô, virgin, loner, and deeply in love with a young man she knew in high school but whom she has not seen for several years. Kirishima Ni, one of her colleagues where she works, is attracted to er andh asks her to be his girlfriend. She is torn – between living her dream, which seems unlikely to be fulfilled, or dating and, perhaps, marrying a man whose interests are different from hers, whom she does not really like, who smells of soup and who repulses her when he tries to kiss her. Ichi, the man she loves, was seemingly popular at school and she barely had any contact with him, speaking, very briefly, to him on only three occasions. But Ni’s attempt at kissing her, prompts her to set up a high school reunion, with Ichi present. By the end of the evening, he admits he does not know her name. Can she grow to love Ni or should she just take some time off and disappear? Another quirky Japanese tale about the morass of love and romance in the modern world.

Kaori Ekuni: きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle)

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The latest addition to my website is Kaori Ekuni‘s きらきらひかる (Twinkle Twinkle). This is another quirky novel about a quirky relationship. In this case Shoko, an emotionally unstable woman, who is a borderline alcoholic, is married to Mutsuki, a homosexual. Both are aware of the other’s situation. However, Shoko had been advised to get married to help her become more emotionally stable and, after rejecting seven other possibilities, had married Mutsuki whom she liked, who is a doctor and who was happy to marry her. He had agreed to marry her because his mother said a doctor must have a wife and Shoko seemed to be happy not to have sex with him but allow him to continue his sexual relationship with his boyfriend, Kon. The relationship seems to work reasonably well, though there are issues. Mutsuki’s weekly ninety-minute clean-up really annoys Shoko and has her shouting and throwing things at the plant and the paintings on the wall. Generally, however, they get on. However, the respective parents do not know about the situation of their new in-law and when it looks like coming out, things take an unexpected turn.

Hiromi Kawakami: 先生の鞄 (US: The Briefcase; UK: Strange Weather in Tokyo)

briefcase

The latest addition to my website is Hiromi Kawakami‘s 先生の鞄 (US: The Briefcase; UK: Strange Weather in Tokyo)/ This is the quirky tale of the relationship between a thirty-seven year old woman, Tsukiko, and her high school Japanese teacher, some thirty years her senior, whom she addresses as Sensei, the honorific term used by the Japanese for their teachers. They meet by chance in a bar, where both go to eat and drink. She had forgotten his name, not least because she never liked Japanese class, hence her use of Sensei. They continue to meet by chance, when they bump into one another, usually at the same bar. They both enjoy their food and drink. The relationship develops slightly when they go to a nearby market together but does not seem to be developing into anything even vaguely romantic. They have a row – over the Giants baseball team, which he adores and she hates – and ignore one another for a long time but then resume cordial relations. They go to the high school cherry blossom festival and she leaves with a former high school boyfriend, now divorced, and he leaves with the art teacher. Again there is a break in the relationship but, as he says, there is a karmic connection between the two and things later resume. Kawakami tells a very charming tale of a relatively unusual relationship, with its ups and downs and what works and what does not, without getting in any way sentimental or trite.

Fumio Niwa: 菩提樹 (The Buddha Tree)

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The latest addition to my website is Fumio Niwa‘s 菩提樹 (The Buddha Tree). This is a long novel, set in a Buddhist temple, with a detailed description of the temple and its rituals (Niwa descended from a long line of priests and trained as a priest before abandoning the profession to become a writer). However, despite the spiritual background, it is primarily concerned with human failings. Soshu has been adopted into the Getsudo family when the current priest dies, leaving a young and still very attractive widow and an eight-year old daughter. The intention is that Soshu will marry Renko, the daughter, when she is of age. However, her mother, Mineyo, starts an affair with Soshu and, even after Renko is of age and the couple are married, the couple continue the affair. A son is born to Soshu and Renko, but the affair continues. Eventually, Renko realises what is going on and, like Niwa’s mother, leaves to marry a Kabuki actor. Meanwhile, Soshu falls for Tomoko, a widowed parishioner, who is trapped in an unpleasant relationship with the main benefactor of the temple, and ceases his relationship with Mineyo. The parishioners, unaware of the affair with Mineyo and Soshu’s feelings for Tomoko, feel that Soshu should remarry. Soshu, despite his failings, is a good man and realises his situation cannot continue as it is. Niwa gives us an excellent portrayal of the conflict between the spiritual life and human emotions and how there is no easy resolution between the two.

Saiichi Maruya: 笹まくら (Grass for My Pillow)

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The latest addition to my website is Saiichi Maruya‘s 笹まくら (Grass for My Pillow). This is an excellent novel about a somewhat taboo subject in Japan: draft desertion. Shokichi Hamada is currently the assistant chief clerk in the registry office of a university. However, during the war, he decided not to serve and travelled around Japan (with a beard) working first as a radio and clock repairer and then as a sand artist. During his travels, he met Akiko, and they stayed together for the duration fo the war but, after the war, her mother made an arranged marriage for her and Hamada returned to Tokyo. While he has not deliberately hidden his war-time exploits, he has certainly tried not to mention them. When there is a possibility of promotion, the word gets out and starts to cause problems, even though quite a few people support him. We follow both his war-time travels and his current life and, in particular, how he deals with the issue of his draft resistance affecting his life. Maruya tells his story very well, as Hamada struggles with how to react to the rumours and whispering.